This column seemed to be well-received by Secretariat fans last year, so I thought I would reprint it as an annual Birthday present to Penny and all Big Red ‘s fans who might have missed it last year. Mrs. Chenery celebrates her 93rd birthday on Tuesday, Jan. 27. So let’s return to her party one year later, but this time with nine photos of Big Red included.
The party is about to begin. The guests, both two-legged and four-legged, are arriving to celebrate Penny Chenery’s 92nd birthday. The room is decked out in blue and white balloons, and hanging on the walls are dozens of racing photos, including the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek. It is a time for nostalgia, for remembering a great lady, who in 1973 was The Queen in a sport of kings.
One by one, the guests present Penny with a birthday card, inscribed with their birthday wishes.
“Dear Penny, first off, thanks for losing that coin flip and for being the greatest press agent a star like me could ask for. And thanks for all the comforts in life you provided, especially supplying me with the most dazzling harem a handsome stud could ask for. I know I rewarded you and helped make you famous, but it only equals what you did for me, although I have to admit I wouldn’t have minded staying in bed and sleeping all day on September 29, 1973. All in all, it was a magical journey and we should take great pride in knowing that we raised the equine genus up a notch and created the standard by which all others are measured. And I never told you this, but I did see you flailing your arms wildly as I came down the stretch in the Belmont Stakes. What a moment that was. I’m sorry I left you so soon, but, unlike the racetrack, there are things in life we have no control over. Hopefully, one day they’ll find a cure for laminitis. I do miss those Certs breath mints at Claiborne Farm. Now that we are reunited on this day, and I see my name in the pedigrees of so many top-class horses, I want to take the time to wish you a very Happy Birthday and many more to come.”
– Your number one glamour boy, Secretariat
“Dear Penny, it gives me great pleasure to return to wish you a Happy 92nd birthday. I remember those early days when you had that funny-looking hairdo and no one knew who you were. I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about being cast aside and living in the shadow of you know who (I still can’t say his name), but deep down we both know who always remained number one in your heart and who really helped bring Meadow Stud back into national prominence. I even forgive you for allowing the Disney people to cut me out of that movie, as if I never existed. But I understand why they had to do it. If they hadn’t, the movie would have been about me. You and Lucien learned a lot from the admitted mistakes you made with me after the Triple Crown, and I’m glad at least for that, although I would have loved to go out a winner after the Stuyvesant Handicap and not have to slog those two miles in the Jockey Club Gold Cup again. But I’d rather concentrate on those glory days of 1971 and early ‘72 when I was The Boss and America’s sweetheart. With my lop ears and narrow frame I wasn’t the movie star that a certain big red horse was, but I was a kind, gentle soul, and it is with all sincerity that I wish you the happiest of birthdays.”
– Your first love, Riva Ridge
“Dear Penny, we had some rough times and some stressful times, but mostly loving and joyous times together, and through it all you were one classy lady, and I don’t even mind you telling the world about us after all these years. You plucked me out of retirement and a sedentary life of boredom and thrust me onto the national stage and gave me fame and fortune at a time when I thought I had saddled my last horse, never to be remembered in the history books. We had a great run together, sharing all the ups and downs, mostly ups, and for that I will remain eternally grateful. Happy Birthday, and I have to say, you still look damn good.”
– Your admiring trainer, Lucien Laurin
“Dear Penny, Well, we’re still around after all these years. I certainly have no regrets, despite the unfortunate twist my life took. But that was many years ago as well. Thanks to you and Big Red, and, yes, Riva, I still am able to keep busy doing autograph signings and attending major events and meeting the fans, old and new. I thank you for two days in particular – August 2, 1971, when you put me on Riva Ridge for the first time in the Flash Stakes, and July 31, 1972, when you and Lucien allowed me to get a leg up on the greatest horse of all time in an allowance race, when no one had heard of the name Secretariat. I had ridden many top horses before that, but my career was launched into orbit that day at Saratoga. Have a wonderful birthday and I’m sure we’ll see each other at the next signing.”
– Your favorite jockey, Ron Turcotte
“Dear Penny, how great it is to see you again and all the old familiar faces. I see Big Red over there and have a burning desire to go over and take the brush to him and give him the brightest shine he’s ever had. What I wouldn’t give to wrap my arms around his neck one more time and tell him what a champ he is. And how about ‘ol Riva, still lookin’ as laid back as ever, with those ears floppin’ all over. Boy, do I miss those days, and I have you and Lucien to thank for allowing me to spend every day of my life during those unforgettable years taking care of legends. I think I’ll go over and at least feed Red and Riva a nice big piece of birthday cake for old times’ sake. Keep up the good causes and for making racing a better sport.”
– Your faithful groom, Eddie Sweat
“Dear Penny, I’m sure you don’t remember us, well, maybe you do, but although we were a big disappointment to you, not living up to our brothers’ reputation, we did try, but we just weren’t blessed with their talent. But we do want to thank you for at least putting us in the spotlight for our maiden races and having all of racing following us and rooting for us. They are moments we’ll never forget. Have a wonderful birthday and we’ll go over now and try to renew family acquaintances. Thanks again for the 15 minutes of fame.”
– Happy Birthday from Red and Riva’s brothers, Capital Asset and Capito
“Dear Penny, I know we had our differences and you and your horse robbed me and my horse of our immortality, and I do have to tell you that regardless of how they portrayed me in the movie, I am not a loudmouth and a bully, and deep down was a great admirer of you and Secretariat. I did get in the Hall of Fame, so there is something to say for that. I still would love to get another crack at that big red horse with my beautiful Sham, but that’s not going to happen, so I’ll just accept it and think about what might have been had Sham come along in a different year. I’m so glad you’re still around to tell everyone about those days and of two very special horses.”
– Your one-time antagonist, Frank “Pancho” Martin
“Dear Penny, all I can do is echo my trainer’s words and wish I hadn’t bloodied my mouth and lost a tooth hitting it against the gate at the start of the Derby. Who knows, right? Hey, I did finish ahead of you guys in the Wood Memorial, abscess or no abscess. That’s’ something. It was a good fight overall; I just came out second best. They said I had an unusually large heart, but Red’s heart was even larger. Some luck, huh?”
– Happy Birthday from your equine antagonist, Sham
“Dear Penny, it’s great to see you again. I’m happy to say that Big Red’s old home, Claiborne Farm, is back on the upswing thanks to Arch, Blame, Pulpit, and War Front. Things are going well here, and on your 92nd birthday I would love to give you the world’s biggest cake, so that it could hold six million candles. Well, 6.08 million to be exact. You helped make my career when I was just a mere youngster and trying so hard to fill my daddy’s shoes and impress Mr. Phipps and the other board members. It was so great working with you in putting together a deal far beyond anything anyone had ever seen before. We rewrote the book on syndicating horses. We made history, and we will share that bond for all time.”
– Your one-time partner, Seth Hancock
“Dear Penny, bet you didn’t think we’d make it here, but there was no way we were going to miss seeing you and all our old friends. We remember those old days at The Meadow and you as a little girl growing up, and the apple of your pappy’s eyes. Man, it’s good to see Big Red and Riva again after helpin’ raise them as babies. We remember the day we put Red in that first stall in the yearling barn, so we knew then he was the special one of the bunch. Man, he was strong. He was so different from Riva. Red would test us, but Riva was just a kind soul. It was sad to see The Meadow go, and we never did go back again, even though we passed it all the time. We remember bein’ picked up every mornin’ in Duval Town, that was built after the emancipation to house freed slaves. They’d pick us up and bring us to the farm. We sure did love workin’ for Mr. Chenery. He always treated us so well, as you did. Oh, by the way, Aunt Sadie and Magnolia say hi and Happy Birthday. And so did ‘ol Wilbur (Bill) and Harry Street, who vanned Red to Hialeah as a 2-year-old, and Howard Gentry, and Olive Britt, who still regrets not gettin’ to the farm in time take Red out of Somethingroyal. But she remembers Mr. Gentry telling her, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for for 35 years.’”
– Happy Birthday from the boys at home — Charlie Ross, Howard Gregory, Bannie Mines, Lewis Tillman, and Raymond “Peter Blue” Goodall
“Dear Penny, all I can say is thank you for allowing me to name Secretariat, even though it took six tries to get it. It was my honor and privilege working by your side during those years. You were indeed your father’s daughter. A very Happy Birthday.”
– From Meadow Stud secretary Elizabeth Ham
“Dear Penny, I had so much fun playing you in the Secretariat movie. I have to admit I hadn’t been to a racetrack since I filmed ‘A Little Romance’ at Longchamp when I was 13. It was inspirational becoming you and just being with you at Belmont on Belmont Stakes day and seeing the admiration people still have for you. I have to admit my favorite moment in the movie was telling our shady trainer to pack up and take a hike. So, thanks for letting me into your world and for making this such a fun role. I hope I look as good as you at 92.”
– Happy Birthday from the other Penny, Diane Lane
“My Dear Penny, thank you for being there when I needed you and for keeping the name of our beloved Meadow alive. You gave up the life you had built for yourself and your family to return to your roots and help save what we built up over so many years. I’m so proud of you for what you accomplished and the self-confident, strong-willed person you became. I didn’t live to see Secretariat, but I was there with you all the way. I hope you’re aware of that. It is so reassuring to know that it was from our blood, passed on through the generations, that a legend was born; perhaps the greatest of all time. And, yes, I was well aware at the time that we finally won the Kentucky Derby with Riva. It gave me a great deal of comfort knowing that. To see you now, celebrating your 92nd birthday, warms my heart, as does seeing my grandson tell the story of your life so masterfully. The Meadow is gone, but it will never be forgotten thanks to you.”
– Your loving father
So, let’s light the candles and cut the cake and celebrate a life well lived, and remember a very special time, not only in racing, but in America. It truly was a time for heroes.
These next three photos of Secretariat were published in an earlier blog, but I decided to post them again. This first one is after being saddled in the Preakness. I had photographed him looking straight ahead, and when he heard the click of the shutter, he turned his head and looked right at me…or through me. It was a memorable one-on-one moment with a legend.
This one is of Secretariat and Riva Ridge at Belmont Park going out for separate works on the turf course in September. The slow mile was of no help to Big Red after Penny Tweedy and Lucien Laurin decided to run the colt in the Woodward Stakes and scratch Riva Ridge when the track came up sloppy. Secretariat had just broken the world record for 1 1/8 miles two weeks earlier after having been sick and now he was being asked to come back quickly and stretch out to 1 1/2 miles. Prove Out still had to run the second-fastest mile and a half in Belmont history in the mud to beat him.
This is my favorite shot of Secretariat at stud. When we approached the fence, he went over and picked up a large branch and brought it over, defying me to try pull it out of his mouth. I felt like I was playing fetch with a dog.
Secretariat’s farewell at Aqueduct. Once again he put on a show, breaking off into a show horse canter. As he headed back toward the clubhouse turn, a shaft of light beamed down directly on him and seemed to illuminate him, creating a surreal final image.
Secretariat rises like the Phoenix at his new home at Claiborne Farm.
Yours truly in his weird 70’s look makes up Big Red’s entourage, along with Penny, Lucien, Ron Turcotte, and Eddie Sweat as the colt heads to the track to work for the Wood Memorial.
With his neck muscles rippling and his gargantuan stride, Big Red works a mile for the Wood.
Secretariat and Riva Riva Ridge on the walking ring at Belmont on a September morning.
Big Red is all majesty in motion as he heads to the Belmont track for his work over the grass course.
Read more on BloodHorse.com: http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2015/01/25/revisiting-penny-s-birthday-party-one-year-later.aspx?&utm_source=DailyNewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20150126#ixzz3PvmOtto6